NBA Playoffs, Lakers Thunder game 5: Kobe brings the tough defense and the Lakers bring the blowout


Bryant_Gasol.jpgKobe Bryant is too old. He’s too injured. He’s no longer explosive. He’s played to many minutes over too many years. He’s lost a couple steps. He’s not THAT Kobe Bryant anymore.

Don’t try to sell that to Thunder coach Scott Brooks.

“Kobe had an impact on the game the stat sheet doesn’t show,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “The guy was competing and set the tone defensively… He won the game with this toughness tonight.”

Kobe took on the job of stopping Russell Westbrook and sparked the Lakers best game of this season. It was over at half, frankly, but you have to play the full 48 so after extensive garbage time (like the entire fourth quarter) it ended 111-87 Lakers. Los Angeles now leads the series three games to two.

The Lakers have thrown a big punch, but not a knockout one — game six is Friday night back in the thunderous Ford Center. The Thunder will get up off the mat, the test goes to them to see how much fight they have left.

After film session on Monday Bryant asked Phil Jackson if he could guard Westbrook, the strong and speedy point guard that had torn up the Lakers defense for two games. Westbrook had triggered a Thunder fast break that ran past the Lakers and made them look old in tying up the series.

The switch changed the defensive attitude of the Lakers. After giving up 61 points at the rim in two games in Oklahoma City — largely on transition plays — the Lakers held the Thunder to 7 fast break points in this game. Another part of that was a strategy that had Fisher go in to rebound and Ron Artest rotate back to be on defense. But the Lakers as a team hustled back and were physical (something the referees were letting go).

“It was going to be contested,” Kobe said of the Lakers defensive tone. “They weren’t going to just get to drive the ball to the basket and get layups and dunks uncontested. They were going to have to make tough shots.”

In the half-court, shooting jumpers, the Thunder have struggled all series. Tuesday night was no different. The Lakers got the game they wanted and raced out to a 14-1 lead — and unlike the fast lead in game three in Oklahoma City, the Lakers never let the Thunder back in. In the first half, the Thunder were 6 of 21 on jump shots. Nothing would fall. Nothing would change. It was just one of those nights for Oklahoma City.

On offense, the Lakers had the best ball movement they have had in months. Swinging side-to-side opened up passing lanes inside. It also opened up driving lanes for Kobe, who fed his big men. Kobe added he was good with that.

“I’ll tell you what, if I didn’t have Pau, Andrew, the crew that I have, I’d score 45 and everybody’d say ‘he shoots too much’,” Bryant said. “I have a great crew, I don’t need to do that. I can pick my poison, so when I get in the paint teams have to make choices. If they play me I’ll pass to my guys and they’ll have a big night. If not I’ll have a big night. It’s as simple as that.”

The Thunder tried everything – even a zone defense for a while in the third — but nothing worked. Gasol had 25, Bynum had 21. This was the Lakers night. This was Kobe’s night.

Friday night… that remains to be seen. The Oklahoma City fans will come to play, and Kevin Durant admitted the team really feeds on that. The Lakers will throw another big punch and try to end this thing. What remains to be seen is if the young Thunder are good enough counterpunchers to extend the series to game seven.

LeBron James says he can still win MVP with reduced workload, cites Stephen Curry

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 02:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers with the ball against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter in Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 2, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The door is open for LeBron James to win a legacy-altering fifth MVP.

But his Cavaliers could also win another championship, leaving Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue planning to limit LeBron’s minutes in preparation of a long playoff run.

LeBron, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN

“No,” James said Saturday when asked if he was concerned that planned rest could affect his MVP case. “Because Steph played 31 minutes a game and he won the MVP.”

“Well, I’ve never set into a season saying I want to win MVP,” he said. “I’ve always thought of the season saying I want to be MVP for my team and it’s resulted in me getting four of them. So I’ve been available, for the most part, every night and I’ve been available on both sides of the floor. I’ve been healthy.

Curry won 2015 MVP while playing 32.7 minutes per game, the fewest by any MVP. He played 34.2 minutes per game last season, third-fewest by an MVP – ahead of just himself and 1978 Bill Walton, who played 33.3 minutes per game.

To contrast, LeBron has set career lows the last two seasons with 36.1 and 35.6 minutes per game. So, LeBron could get a reduced workload and still play more than Curry did.

But Curry, to some degree is an anomaly. He often sat late in games with his Warriors on the right side of blowouts. The Cavs aren’t good enough regularly rest LeBron as much in those situations.

It’s not that voters care directly about minutes. But the less LeBron plays, the lower his per-game averages will be and the less Cleveland will win. Those factors matter significantly.

LeBron can overcome that. He’s darned good, and there could be a push to reward him after the last two Finals have shown he’s still better than Curry when it matters most.

Playing fewer minutes per game won’t eliminate LeBron from the MVP race, not even close. But it will – and should – hurt his case. After all, MVP should reward the player who does the most to help his team win. MVP-caliber players don’t significantly help while sitting on the bench.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder prepare for life without Kevin Durant

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 11:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a preseason game at American Airlines Center on October 11, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Maybe life after Kevin Durant won’t be so bad for the Thunder.

After the longtime face of the franchise left for Golden State, crestfallen Oklahoma City fans were worried it was just a matter of time before the team’s co-star, Russell Westbrook, would follow suit. In a move that shocked many, Westbrook re-signed with Oklahoma City. The former scoring champion and two-time All-Star MVP’s return gives the team hope.

New faces such as shooting guard Victor Oladipo and forward Domantas Sabonis, both acquired in the deal that sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando, might take some time to fit in. Westbrook believes the team is talented enough to succeed if it is focused and the new pieces blend with the old ones who helped the Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals last season.

“Just play hard, man,” Westbrook said. “I don’t know, win or lose. The only thing I know is that as long as we play hard, we give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

Westbrook could post historic numbers. He averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds last season and had 18 triple-doubles, the most since Magic Johnson had 18 during the 1981-82 season. Without Durant, more of that could be on the way.

Sabonis, a rookie out of Gonzaga who played for Lithuania’s Olympic team, played with the starters throughout the preseason. Oladipo averaged 15.9 points and 4.0 assists in three years with Orlando. He joins Westbrook to form arguably the most athletic backcourt tandem in the NBA.

“Defensively, I think we can be the best defensive backcourt in the league because we can do different things with our size and using our length and our speed,” Westbrook said.

Here are some things to watch for the Thunder:

Steven Adams

The 7-footer from New Zealand was already a top-notch defender and rebounder before stepping up his offense and averaging 10.1 points during the playoffs last season. In his final two preseason games, he scored 20 points against Minnesota and 17 points against Denver. He could be a breakout star.

“I think we’ve had an opportunity these last two nights (against Minnesota and Denver) how good he is around the basket, how smart he has become and how much of a presence he is in the middle,” Westbrook said.

Enes Kanter

The natural expectation was that Ibaka’s departure would prompt coach Billy Donovan to move Kanter, who finished third in balloting for the league’s sixth-man award last season, into the starting lineup. Instead, Donovan started Sabonis throughout the preseason. Perhaps Donovan knows best – Sabonis showed he can hang with the starters, and Kanter averaged 17.8 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 61.7 percent in the preseason.


Oklahoma City’s defense could slip with Ibaka in Orlando. Sabonis has great potential, but he’s young, and NBA defense takes some time to learn. Donovan said Sabonis has caught on quickly, but there still could be a dip early because Ibaka’s level of play is difficult to replace – he was a three-time first-team All-NBA defender and a two-time blocks leader.


The Thunder added several foreign players to the roster who will add depth – Spain’s Alex Abrines, France’s Joffrey Lauvergne and Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova. Donovan said he likes the maturity foreign players add to a team. Abrines played for Spain’s national team that earned bronze medals at the Olympics. Lauvergne played for France in Rio.


Andre Roberson has shifted from the starting shooting guard to starting small forward. That means the Thunder still have Roberson’s dynamic athletic ability, defensive prowess and nose for the ball on the boards in the lineup. He was a liability on offense in the past, but he started becoming more of a factor on offense during the playoffs last season.

“I think he feels more comfortable and confident offensively,” Donovan said. “He’s put forth effort in that area. It’s just him continuing to grow offensively and trying to put him in situations where he slashes to the basket and he can cut and he can get out in transition and he can take his open corner threes.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP

Raptors’ Jared Sullinger to have foot surgery, miss “extended time”

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 19:  Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics looks on from the bench against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 19, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Raptors are counting on Jared Sullinger to cover for the loss of Bismack Biyombo by crashing the boards, helping them space the floor on offense, and just being solid.

But they are going to have to get by without him for a while, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports, and confirmed by the team.

There is no timeline for Sullinger’s return, but it’s going to be a while. Sullinger had battled a stress reaction in his foot a year ago, this is likely an extension of that problem.

This certainly hurts the Raptors’ depth up front, but it’s also not a massive setback for a team with lofty aspirations this season. Patrick Patterson will get more minutes, which is a good thing, plus the Raptors need to play DeMarre Carroll more at the four. They can wait for Sullinger (who they signed this summer after Boston let him walk in the wake of signing Al Horford.

Heat waive Beno Udrih, Briante Webber, two others to keep Rodney McGruder

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 09:  Beno Udrih #19 of the Miami Heat drives on Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs during a game  at American Airlines Arena on February 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Beno Udrih sacrificed $90,000 last season to get the Heat an additional $2.7 million last season.

They repaid him with more than $1.5 million this season (though less than $1 million of it from their own pockets).

And that’s all they gave him.

Miami won’t even give Udrih a regular-season roster spot, waiving him to allow Rodney McGruder to make the team.

Heat release:

The Miami HEAT announced today that they have waived Vashil Fernandez, Luis Montero, Beno Udrih, Brianté Weber and Okaro White.

To recap: Out for the rest of the final season of his guaranteed contract due to injury, Udrih took a buyout that lowered his compensation by $90,000 last season. That brought the Heat under the luxury-tax line, preventing them from paying the repeater rate and allowing them to receive about $2.5 million given to non-tax-paying teams. Miami then re-signed Udrih this offseason, giving him a one-year, $1,551,659 fully guaranteed contract. Most players with guaranteed salaries stick into the regular season, but it seems the Heat paid Udrih for a reason other than their faith in him as a backup point guard.

Here’s the kicker: Because Udrih was a 12-year veteran on a one-year minimum contract, the league – funded by the very teams that rightfully protested Miami’s arrangement – has to fund $571,228 of his salary.

The Heat seemed high on Briante Weber, but he’s young and needs polish. McGruder, who went undrafted out of Kansas State in 2013, is probably more capable of helping now.

This leaves Miami without a clear backup point guard behind Goran Dragic, but combo guards Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson can handle the role.